Asian American Studies Denied to San Quentin Inmates: APAs fight for their rights behind bars

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Stories from the Inside: This is the first in a series of articles AsianWeek will be featuring about Asian Pacific Americans and the criminal justice system. Look for upcoming stories about racial segregation in prisons and first-person accounts from San Quentin and Pelican Bay.

Back in 1988, San Quentin State Prison began its first college credit classes with the aid of teachers and textbooks provided by Patten College of Oakland. Since then, many of the inmates in this high security prison have received GEDs and even associate degrees, to be better prepared for life on the outside.

Education frees the mind, builds character — and some argue — may reduce recidivism. For Eddy Zheng, the San Quentin College program has been rehabilitative. Seventeen years ago, Zheng was sent to prison for armed robbery, sentenced for seven years to life. During his years in prison, he has been able to read, write, learn English, and receive both his GED and his associates degree. With his education, he hopes to educate at-risk kids about the consequences of crime when he is released from prison.

Zheng has taken all the courses offered to him, but he and his fellow inmates are still thirsty to learn more about their roots as Asian Pacific Americans. On March 11, Zheng, Viet Mike Ngo, Roy Remeidio and Stephen Liebb proposed to the academic committee that the education program include courses that reflect their cultural history and identity. The four men signed a petition as a formal request. However, they were faced with an unanticipated reaction.

Following the request, the wardens from San Quentin separated the four inmates and accused Zheng of plotting to use the classes as a means to escape, literally.

“We believe that Zheng was plotting a violent escape from San Quentin with the aid of people in the community in the guise of offering education services to the inmates,” said San Quentin spokesperson Vernell Crittendon.

In May 2002, the four petition signees’ cells were searched. Personal correspondence, legal materials, writings, photographs and other paperwork were seized. The following month, Zheng was placed in administrative segregation (solitary confinement). Zheng was accused of trying to publish material that was not approved by the prison. In April 2002, Zheng had published an article in a UC Berkeley newspaper, HardBoiled, entitled, “Break These Chains,” which discussed the importance of Asian American studies in prison.

San Quentin claimed that Zheng was “circumventing procedures for information / materials going out of the institution” and placed him in solitary confinement in June 2002, where he remains today. Since then, Remeidio has been transferred to Solano Prison and Ngo has been transferred to Avenal Prison — all higher security and more dangerous prisons. On Oct. 16, the administration recommended that Zheng be transferred to Corcoran Prison because he was a threat to the safety and security of San Quentin, but he has not yet been moved.

Zheng claims that he did not publish materials that were against the rule of San Quentin. According to the California Code of Regulations, Title 15, Section 3020, Zheng had abided by the section stating that “inmates may participate in the publication and distribution of an inmate publication only with the institution head’s specific approval.”

According to Crittendon, Zheng was placed in solitary confinement before they discovered that he had published materials in Hardboiled. Crittendon claims that there was substantial evidence that Zheng and his inmates were becoming involved in “illegal activity.”

San Quentin officials say that they filed their case with the Marin County District Attorney’s office but no such case shows up on record as being filed or recorded in the DA’s office.

“We handle all our cases inside our prison and that includes homicide,” Crittendon said. “We handle it through the disciplinary process here and in the institutional level and that’s how this matter was resolved.”

He adds that Zheng “circumvented the policies” by becoming friendly with the volunteers and violated policy by writing newspaper articles and asking the volunteers to take the article out of the prison, not allowing it to go through the normal process. Crittendon states that the normal process would involve writing the article, entering it in the mail through the media person and having it mailed out of prison.

All four APA inmates have pending lawsuits and writs of habeas corpus in the Marin County Superior Court. Attorney Charles Carbone of California Prison Focus, a 10-year old nonprofit human rights organization, represents all four individuals in the case. He argues that the retaliatory actions against the men are a gross violation of their civil rights.

“The department has so many rules,” Carbone said. “If you were a correctional officer and you were to walk into any cell, you would find something in there that’s going to violate a rule. They identified these guys as troublemakers because they were advocating reforms for the San Quentin public programs — specifically to have ethnic studies classes added to the curriculum.”

Currently, the four men are planning to file an action in federal court claiming that the State of California, vis-a-vis San Quentin, is violating their rights through a pattern of reprisal and retaliation. Because there is no formal system in place for requesting educational changes, Zheng and the other inmates engaged in forms of advocacy including letter writing, contacting professors and putting together a petition — a method that has not been tolerated by San Quentin, Carbone explains.

“The problem is that they don’t want prisoners to have any say in formulating departmental policy, so any time prisoners speak up and say they’re going to assert their rights, it’s going to be a threat to the institution,” Carbone argues. “The prison doesn’t care if San Quentin prison has Asian studies or not. They care about having the sole discretion over the nature of the curriculum and this is not subject to negotiation.”

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